Blogs & Videos: Evolution

Eight of the Most Nightmarish Prehistoric Animals

There's been life on earth for about four billion years, and a lot of it has been freaking terrifying. Great job, evolution, we’ll all be having bad dreams tonight. 1. Basilosaurus basilosaurus.png © The Field Museum, GEO86500_166d, Photographer Karen Carr, artist.

Illustration of a black squid with red eyes

Inside the World of the Elusive Vampire Squid

Vampire squids live in a world totally alien to us, and almost qualify as alien themselves. They spend most of their lives floating in the ocean’s deep, dark, midwater depths that don’t have much oxygen. A vampire squid brought onboard a ship by a trawl is black with a huge pointed beak—an infernal appearance if there ever was one. Despite their threatening appearance, studies of this ancient group (we think they had their heyday during the time of the dinosaurs) have improved our knowledge of cephalopod evolution.

An artist's rendering of an prehistoric carnivore called a beardog, with it's mouth open reaching for an insect.

Chihuahua-sized fossil "beardogs" shed new light on evolution of dogs and their relatives

Fossil discoveries don’t always happen out in the field, with scientists armed with pick-axes realizing they’ve found something special. Sometimes, fossils lie in wait in museum collections until the right researcher comes along and realizes there’s something unusual about them. That’s what happened this time, and the fossils in question are prehistoric dog relatives called “beardogs.”

A tiny primate, the Goodman's mouse lemur, held in a person's hand.

Ridiculously cute mouse lemurs hold key to Madagascar’s past

Today, Madagascar is home to a mosaic of different habitats—a lush rainforest in the east and a dry deciduous forest in the west, separated by largely open highlands. But the island off the southeast coast of Africa hasn’t always been like that—a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences announces that these two ecologically different portions of the island were once linked by a patchwork of forested areas. And to figure it out, the scientists analyzed the DNA of some of the cutest animals on earth—mouse lemurs.

An artist's rendering of a small dinosaur being chased through a field by two larger dinosaurs, while two other small dinosaurs run away in the background.

Newly-discovered dinosaur had “T. rex arms” that evolved independently

Scientists still aren’t sure why T. rex had those absurdly small forelimbs, but apparently the look was all the rage in the Late Cretaceous. A newly-discovered dinosaur from Patagonia has similar short, two-fingered claws, even though it’s not closely related to the tyrannosaurs.

An artist's rendering of a Purgatorius unio, a small prehistoric mammal resembling a squirrel.

Mammals began their takeover long before the death of the dinosaurs

It’s a familiar story—the mighty dinosaurs dominated their prehistoric environment, while tiny mammals took a backseat, until the dinosaurs (besides birds) went extinct 66 million years ago, allowing mammals to shine. Just one problem—it’s not true. A new article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reports that mammals actually began their massive diversification ten to twenty million years before the extinction that ended the age of the dinosaurs.

Drawing of an animal that looks like a large cat with small ears and long, sharp teeth

Dueling sabers: What this marsupial has in common with a cat

Saber-toothed cats such as Smilodon are easy to recognize, thanks to their long, sharp canine teeth. But saber-toothed cats had an unexpected lookalike: something more closely related to a kangaroo than a cat. Thylacosmilus was a saber-toothed mammal most closely related to marsupials, living in South America between seven and three million years ago. The marsupial’s young would continue developing after birth, while the placental saber-toothed cat gave birth to developed offspring.

A fossil of a Sclerocormus parviceps, a sea-dwelling reptile, shown with a ruler to show scale.

Strange sea-dwelling reptile fossil hints at rapid evolution after mass extinction

Two hundred and fifty million years ago, life on earth was in a tail-spin—climate change, volcanic eruptions, and rising sea levels contributed to a mass extinction that makes the death of the dinosaurs look like child’s play. Marine life got hit hardest—96% of all marine species went extinct. For a long time, scientists believed that the early marine reptiles that came about after the mass extinction evolved slowly, but the recent discovery of a strange new fossil brings that view into question.

An artistic rendering of an under water scene, featuring the crocodile-sized sea-dwelling reptile, Atopodentatus unicus, swimming with prehistoric fish.

“Hammerhead” creature was world’s first plant-eating marine reptile

In 2014, scientists discovered a bizarre fossil—a crocodile-sized sea-dwelling reptile that lived 242 million years ago in what today is southern China. Its head was poorly preserved, but it seemed to have a flamingo-like beak. But in a paper published today in Science Advances, paleontologists reveal what was really going on—that “beak” is actually part of a hammerhead-shaped jaw apparatus, which it used to feed on plants on the ocean floor. It’s the earliest known example of an herbivorous marine reptile.

How to Beat Extinction: Live Fast, Die Young

When you don’t know if you have much of a future, you focus more on the now—there’s no point in biding your time and waiting when you could die any day. It seems that evolution follows this rule too—a recent study published by Field Museum scientists in Scientific Reports reveals that for Lystrosaurus (pygmy hippo-sized mammal relatives that lived with the dinosaurs), when the going got tough, the tough got busy.

Pages